Andrea Horwath's NDP to lead opposition in a 'very divided province' after Ontario election
Experts say Horwath now has 4 years to convince Ontario voters she has what it takes to be premier
Andrea Horwath, the single mom from Steeltown who waited tables to pay for university, is the new head of Ontario's official opposition. And now she has four years to convince people she can be premier.
Horwath's NDP gained steam throughout the campaign with a focused message, but fell short of Doug Ford's PC party Thursday. She was able to almost double the party's seat count from the 2014, with a projected total of 41.
As NDP supporters gathered in her hometown convention centre, there was happiness and cheering as the results came in. But it was tinged with disappointment that despite the progress, the momentum of the campaign hadn't delivered more.
Lisette Sayes, 25, of Hamilton is a recent Redeemer University grad and was a canvass captain.
"It makes me a bit upset, but I knew there was a good chance of this. Who knows? Maybe in the next four years, (the NDP) can be first."
Horwath expressed the same hope during her speech Thursday night.
"We will not rest," she told a cheering crowd. "We will not stop fighting until we have it."
She also pledged to be "positive and constructive" in opposition, and to represent people who "did not vote for cuts."
She told media afterward that she planned to use her opposition status to keep the pressure on Ford's government.
"I'm going to remind him each and every day that the government of Ontario, regardless of who's at the helm, should be for all of the people," she said.
Horwath's next move, experts say, is to make inroads in 905 ridings, recruit high-quality candidates for 2022 and convince Ontario she can lead.
"There will be that expectation that she can lead the NDP to its second government in four years time," said Peter Graefe, a McMaster University political science expert.
A significant number of Ontarians "had no clue who she was" before this election, Graefe said. Now "she'll have to convert people historically seen as Liberals to the NDP."
Horwath's task now is to "rebrand (the NDP) as a government in waiting," said Larry Savage, a Brock University labour studies expert.
"Will they go out and start deliberately trying to recruit candidates to be the next minister of finance or minister of health? I don't know that they did that this time."
While she has to broaden the party's appeal, she will still need to take care of the traditional NDP base, said Martin Warren, district manager for the United Steelworkers Union. He said her challenge will be to face off with Ford on issues important to his union, and others.
"I would hope that she uses all of her experience and knowledge to make sure she pushes Ford in a direction that safeguards working people and our public assets, and jobs, and nurses," he said.
To hear those who know her tell it, Horwath is well suited to do this.
Born and raised in Stoney Creek, Horwath's dad was an auto worker and her mom a high school janitor. She was one of four kids.
She attended McMaster University for labour studies and waited tables to help pay for her education. She was about 19 when she started working with the Hamilton and District Labour Council, recalls Wayne Marston, a former Hamilton NDP MP and friend of Horwath's.
'Passionate, fierce and not afraid'
"She was pretty close to what she is today," said Marston, a labour council director at the time. "She was always a fairly serious-minded person. She was very involved and she cared a lot about things."
Horwath was a community organizer at McQuesten Community Legal Clinic. In 1996, she co-organized the huge Day of Action protest that put 100,000 people on the streets of Hamilton protesting cuts by the Mike Harris government.
The next year, she ran for the federal NDP and lost. That gave her name recognition though, and later that year, she was voted onto city council.
No one was surprised to see her on council, said long-time friend Denise Christopherson, wife of Hamilton Centre MP David Christopherson. She met Horwath at a Take Back the Night march more than 30 years ago. Even back then, she said, Horwath was "passionate, fierce and not afraid to take on an issue."
As a councillor, she was "very feisty," said Sam Merulla, a Hamilton city councillor who served with Horwath. "She's very representative of the people, and she's fearless. Her pet peeves were always around arrogance related to wealth."
'Very turbulent time'
Horwath was first elected to Queen's Park in 2004, and became leader in 2009, making this her third election as leader. In 2014, she drew criticism for campaigning farther to the centre, and the party failed to gain more seats. That drew speculation Horwath would step down.
After this campaign, Horwath isn't going anywhere, Savage said. The party already hangs onto its leaders for a long time, he said. And the party is likely "ecstatic" about this outcome.
"The NDP hasn't been in the one or two position since losing in 1995."
Horwath is the opposition leader at "a very turbulent time," Merulla said. But he thinks she can handle it.
"What we're going to see is a very divided province," he said, "one that is consistently and predictably on edge."